Written by: Emily Hutchinson
Literature on stress has revealed that stressors—external events that induce stress—have the ability to build upon one another, causing an eventual breakdown if not handled effectively (Wheaton et al., 2012). It is no surprise that university students are stressed. We are subject to a high volume of academic deadlines and are expected to manage personal and social developments, while maintaining good grades. Many students also work part-time or even full-time to put themselves through university, adding to their stress. Students are particularly vulnerable to high levels of stress and anxiety in relation to tests and exams (Nelson & Knight, 2010). Considering that students’ anxiety and stress increases dramatically during times of examinations, it is important to share stress reduction techniques that students can employ, in order to maintain their mental health as exams approach.
It is important to note that stress is a natural and common part of everyday life, especially in the 21st century, but its inevitability does not negate its negative impact on our mental well being. Stress is positively correlated with feelings of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation, and is on the rise among students (Downs & Eisenberg, 2012). The most common reasons why students tend to avoid seeking treatment include: a preference for dealing with stress alone, the belief that extreme stress is a normal part of university, not seeing their needs as serious, and not having time for treatment. Their avoidance of treatment is worrisome, as university students often use maladaptive coping strategies which can exacerbate the effects of stress, such as binge drinking (Dundas et al., 2016). Due to these preferences, equipping students with evidence-based skills to better manage their own stress is essential. Additionally, in response to the backlash against the quality and efficiency of university mental health services, we should be encouraging student-led preventative mental health interventions that decrease the demand being placed on under-funded mental health services across campus.
Mental health exists on a spectrum from mental illness to mental thriving. Positive psychology seeks to fulfill people and create healthy communities that mediate mental illness. It focuses on amplifying one’s strengths to help buffer against adversity (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). It does this by encouraging attitudes and actions that allow individuals to flourish under ordinary conditions (i.e. the absence of mental illness). The four areas of mental health that contribute to positive psychology are subjective well being (how you think you are doing), optimism, happiness, and self-determination. Through the development of these areas, positive psychology emerges. Possessing traits such as positive affect, optimism, and high self-efficacy are advantageous to university students who routinely experience demanding circumstances (Nelson & Knight, 2010). Students who are able to enhance these traits in themselves show improvement in their stress levels and general coping with the demands of university (Nelson & Knight, 2010). Optimism specifically is said to promote more favourable appraisals of examinations, decreasing associated stress (Nelson & Knight, 2010).
A meta-analysis of positive psychological interventions conducted by Regehr et al. (2013) finds that cognitive, behavioural and mindfulness-based interventions which focus on stress reduction are the most impactful on reduction in student’s stress and anxiety compared to other forms of interventions. One of these techniques is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is a program developed to tackle mental illnesses related to stress and emotion-regulation through mindfulness meditation (Bishop, 2002). The goal of MBSR is to obtain mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state in which the practicing individual is highly aware and focused on their surroundings and current situation, but refrain from forming emotional reactions. Participants change their relationship with their thoughts and feelings, and begin to understand them as mental events, rather than aspects of the self or objective reflections of reality (Bishop, 2002). Instead of reacting to situations, the goal is to respond to them in a rational and thoughtful manner. In doing so, participants are able to step back from emotional situations that cause negative thought patterns and increase stress. In relation to exams, this would involve rejecting thoughts of failure or unpreparedness and redirecting that focus on reviewing notes or having a relaxing, anxiety-free study break so that your brain can recharge.
So how might one achieve mindfulness? According to a study conducted by Bishop, a technique which helps individuals practice mindfulness includes focusing their attention to a single point of awareness (usually their breath). If focus is lost, the participant is expected to acknowledge and accept each mental state, and let go of them without evaluating the content of the thought; returning to their point of focus (Bishop, 2002). Secondly, participants observe the objective reality of their situation without making judgments or elaborating on the concern for the sake of preventing emotional responses. Lastly, participant are expected to remain open to their experience, integrating all available information and observing it objectively (Bishop, 2002). In succeeding to be mindful, participants are able to step back and acknowledge that every thought and emotion is a mental event, and only becomes concerning or stressful when evaluated as such. By learning to let things go, individuals avoid exhausting mental energy towards worries in which they have no control over. Mindfulness also acts as a way of assessing what deserves immediate attention and what can wait—clearing headspace to focus on what is important. Although previous research has suggested that individuals experiencing clinically significant mental illnesses are more likely to drop out of MBSR programs, a study conducted on university students by Felver et al (2018) had a relatively low number of dropouts, and found that MSBR is useful for students with any level of stress and most mental health statuses. Felver et al. (2018) also find significant reductions in students’ stress levels after 8 weeks of using MBSR techniques, with a reduction of stress being maintained over an extended period of time.
A similar and more accessible intervention is simply meditation. Students can access guided meditation sessions online through YouTube or Spotify.
Hopefully this information will prompt students to learn more effective stress-reduction activities to help them when they are feeling overwhelmed. MBSR and meditation are some healthy ways to handle the stress of university, but are most certainly not the only ways. Remember that stress is normal, but when it becomes too much you should take steps to intervene before it poses a threat to your mental health.
Here are some stress-reducing activities that are offered on campus during exams:
Innis Library normally gives out colouring pages and healthy snacks in December
Free Yoga Classes @ The Pulse’s Mindfulness Centre (Dec 9th-16th)
Study, Snack, Support! @ MUSC 311/313 (Dec 9th, 11th, 14th, 16th: 8am-12pm)
Bishop, S. R. (2002). What do we really know about mindfulness-based stress reduction?. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(1), 71-83.
Downs, M. F., & Eisenberg, D. (2012). Help seeking and treatment use among suicidal college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(2), 104-114.
Dundas, I., Thorsheim, T., Hjeltnes, A., & Binder, P. E. (2016). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for academic evaluation anxiety: A naturalistic longitudinal study. Journal of college student psychotherapy, 30(2), 114-131.
Felver, J. C., Morton, M. L., & Clawson, A. J. (2018). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Reduces Psychological Distress in College Students. College Student Journal, 52(3), 291-298.
Nelson, D. W., & Knight, A. E. (2010). The power of positive recollections: Reducing test anxiety and enhancing college student efficacy and performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 732-745.
Regehr, C., Glancy, D., & Pitts, A. (2013). Interventions to reduce stress in university students: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 148(1), 1-11.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction (Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 5). American Psychological Association.